Abandonment Anxiety and Relationships


Abandonment anxiety is fear of being abandoned in a relationship. People with abandonment anxiety have one of two insecure attachment styles: attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance. Attachment anxiety is characterised by a need for attention from others and fear that a partner is going to leave. Attachment avoidance is characterised by a persistent need to be self-reliant and fear of dependence.

Origin of Attachment Theory

Modern attachment theory arose out of the work of psychiatrists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth in the 20th century. Both researchers were influenced by the Austrian psychiatrist and founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. In one of Bowlbys’ first empirical studies, he examined 44 boys at the London Child Guidance Clinic who were unable to express affection and empathy. In all of the cases, the lack of affection was grounded in maternal deprivation or abandonment. In the 1950s, Ainsworth joined Bowlbys’ research team, and together they examined numerous cases of childhood abandonment and affection deprivation, which culminated in what is now known as “attachment theory.”


According to Ainsworth, attachment is a strong, affectionate tie that binds together two individuals emotionally and that continues over time. Attachment theory holds that these emotional ties between people are crucial to healthy development mentally, socially and emotionally. The crucial time period for this development is the first six years of childhood. For healthy child development to take place, child and caregiver must form a bond in which the caregiver provides a secure environment for the child and shows emotional affection and support. These first attachments constitute the foundation for future interpersonal relationships.

Early Abandonment

Events and conditions such as divorce, illness or the inability to express affection can interfere with or disrupt the natural bonding process between child and caregiver, says California family therapist Daniel Sonkin. When a caregiver does not or cannot respond affectionately to a child’s fears, the child will grow up in one of two ways. He may continue to seek the affection and bonding he was missing in childhood, or he will become excessively self-reliant, distrusting others and having an intense fear of dependence on others. How an abandoned child develops depends on which coping styles has been most effective for him and the severity of the abandonment, say relationship experts Gwendolyn Stevens and Sheldon Gardner.

Attachment Avoidance

People whose fear of abandonment has resulted in attachment avoidance shy away from closeness and affection in their relationships or avoid committed relationships altogether. They usually prefer casual sex that does not have any emotional impact. People who fear abandonment so much that they shy away from all deep emotional connections with others are at a greater risk for developing life-threatening illnesses, reports University of Washington psychiatrist Paul Ciechanowski. In one study, Ciechanowski and colleagues found that diabetics who demonstrated an avoidant attachment style had significantly shorter life spans than diabetics who were not afraid of reaching out.

Attachment Anxiety

People whose fear of abandonment has resulted in co-dependence and fear that partners will leave may be reluctant to enter a long-term committed relationship, but once they enter one, they become deeply attached to the other person and will be excessively worried that the relationship may end. According to University of Illinois psychologist Chris Fraley, people who fear abandonment are highly attuned to the emotional expressions of others. Fraley tested how people with different attachment styles reacted to changing faces and found that people with attachment anxiety were more accurate interpreters of nonverbal communication, but only when they took the time needed to make a decision.

The intense emotional crisis of abandonment can create a trauma severe enough to leave an emotional imprint on individuals’ psychobiological functioning, affecting their future choices and responses to rejection, loss, or disconnection.  Following an abandonment experience in childhood or adulthood, some people develop a sequela of post traumatic symptoms which share sufficient features with post traumatic stress disorder to be considered a subtype of this diagnostic category.

As with other types of post trauma, the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder of abandonment range from mild to severe.  PTSD of abandonment is a psychobiological condition in which earlier separation traumas interfere with current life.  An earmark of this interference is intrusive anxiety which often manifests as a pervasive feeling of insecurity – a primary source of self sabotage in our primary relationships and in achieving long range goals.  Another earmark is a tendency to compulsively reenact our abandonment scenarios through repetitive patterns, i.e., abandoholism – being attracted to the unavailable.

Another factor of abandonment post trauma is for victims to be plagued with diminished self esteem and heightened vulnerability within social contexts (including the workplace) which intensifies their need to buttress their flagging ego strength with defence mechanisms which can be automatically discharged and whose intention is to protect the narcissistically injured self from further rejection, criticism, or abandonment.  These habituated defences are often maladaptive to their purpose in that they can create emotional tension and jeopardise our emotional connections.

Victims of abandonment trauma can have emotional flashbacks that flood us with feelings ranging from mild anxiety to intense panic in response to triggers that we may or may not be conscious of.  Once our abandonment fear is triggered, it can lead to what Daniel Goleman calls emotional hijacking.  During an emotional hijacking, the emotional brain has taken over, leaving its victims feeling a complete loss of control over their own lives, at least momentarily.  If emotional hijacking occurs frequently enough, its chronic emotional excesses can lead to self-depreciation and isolation within relationships, as well as give rise to secondary conditions such as chronic depression, anxiety, obsessive thinking, negative narcissism, and addiction.

Post Traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a so called “disease” of the amygdala – the emotional center of the brain responsible for initiating the Fight Flee Freeze response.  In PTSD, the amygdala is set on overdrive to keep us in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance — action-ready to declare a state of emergency should it perceive any threat even vaguely reminiscent of the original trauma. The amygdala, acting as the brain’s warning system, is constantly working to protect (overprotect) us from any possibility of further injury.  In the post trauma sequelae related specifically to abandonment, the amygdala scans the environment for potential threats to our attachments or to our sense of self worth.

People with PTSD of abandonment can have heightened emotional responses to abandonment triggers that are often considered insignificant by others. For instance, depending on circumstances, when we feel slighted, criticised, or excluded, it can instigate an emotional hijacking and interfere in, and even jeopardise your personal or professional life.

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  1. Gosh, reading through this and other articles is like seeing myself in a mirror. Basically finding labels for life experiences. Just discovered the label “C-PTSD”. Had no idea what exactly was going on. Childhood attachment deficits serious issue for starters. Thanks for this opportunity to understand.

    • Thanks for taking the trouble to comment. I am thrilled the blog has helped you. I hope some of the articles are of use to you. CPTSD is a very debilitating condition. All the best for the future and good luck with your management of it. Erin

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